Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play about the Prince of Denmark says:
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.” (Act 3, Scene 2)
Language is a powerful expression of culture.
Writing systems, words, and phonetics convey meanings that reveal beliefs and cosmologic views of the people using them. The ancient Mayan language, with roots preceding Old English, is present as both oral and visible literature written on ceramic vessels, painted on murals and wall friezes, carved on stone monuments and wooden
lintels, and in the few books (codices) that survived burning by Spaniards. Over 2000 years of Mayan literature tells stories with two overlapping strands—one following events on the surface of the earth, the other following events in the sky or underworld. This reveals the inter-dimensional cosmology of the ancient Mayas, where worlds of people, Gods, ancestors, and demons intersect regularly.
Shakespeare’s language is far from modern English, but few would suggest paraphrasing his great works. The cadence, style, and choice of words create a period feel and bring readers into those places and times. Mayan language can also invoke their culture and environment, but is difficult to express in English. There could hardly be a more “foreign” type of writing and language to English-speakers.
Classic Mayan hieroglyphic writing.
In use for 2000 years beginning around 300 BC, Classic Mayan was a single “prestige” language, highly formalized throughout the Maya regions. Phonetic decipherments in the
late 1980s and 1990s showed it related to the Cholan subgroup of Mayan languages, with Ch’orti and its ancestral language Cholti the closest relatives. Maya hieroglyphs represent word signs (logograms) or syllables (syllabograms), combined into glyph blocks. Every part of the glyph block contains meaning, some markings signaling qualities of speech such as
glottalization, aspiration, or vowel length. Single blocks often contain multiple words, with considerable artistic license in visual design and format. There were multiple ways to express words, and repeated images for emphasis. Over 100 years were necessary for Western epigraphers to decipher Mayan writing, due to its complexity. About 80% of hieroglyphs can now be read, giving us direct entry into ancient Mayan literature.
The basic word order for Mayan clauses was verb-object-subject (VSO). English follows the subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. Many Mesoamerican languages follow VSO, along with Celtic, Afroasiatic, Austronesian, and Salishan languages.
Examples of these differences:
SVO “She loves him.” “Tutuum Yohl K’inich plants the stone.”
VSO “Loves she him.” “Plants the stone Tutuum Yohl K’inich.”
Language was infused with sacred itz, life essence, to the Mayas.
They valued poetic and courtly uses of language, believing the Gods were both honored and pleased when words were well spoken. This was especially important in the high culture of Maya courts, a central institution in their hierarchical society. Mayan poems typically used the device of couplets, the repeating of key words and phrases in consecutive lines, also called parallel verse. While many consider it heresy to paraphrase a finished English poem, the Mayas used paraphrase to construct poems in the first place. For them, this was a process taking place inside a language, viewing poetry itself as translation. It gives a lilting quality to Mayan language.
“Kajuljutik, kachupchutik, pa ri q’ekum, pa ri aq’ab’.”
“It shines, it shimmers, in the blackness, in the night.” – 2000 Years of Mayan Literature
“So then they began their songs, their dances.
So then all of Xibalba arrived,
the spectators crowded the floor.
And they danced everything:
they danced the Weasel,
they danced the Poorwill,
they danced the Armadillo.” – Popol Vuh
Speak the Speech in Mayan
Writing historical fiction about Classic Period Mayas, I grappled with making the language reflect their unique, lyrical speech patterns. I wanted readers to immediately experience a different, courtly culture so I avoided use of contractions and created some flowery speeches for characters. From time to time, I constructed sentences following the VSO order but this didn’t always sit well with readers. An example from the first book in the series about Yohl Ik’nal drew criticism: “Just because characters talk like Yoda doesn’t make them wise.”
“Concerned I am about your daughter,” the priestess said.
Actually, the ancient Mayas spoke this way centuries before Yoda came onto the Star Wars scene. To make Yoda wise and exotic, Lucas borrowed Mesoamerican sentence structure. But I relented and switched to SVO—“I am concerned about your daughter”—because it was the first sentence of dialogue in the book. Whenever it worked, however, I continued to have characters “Speak the speech” in their native pattern. The VSO speech pattern has persisted into contemporary times, at least among traditional Mayas. Hunbatz Men, Itzá Maya elder and daykeeper was my main teacher while I lived in Yucatan, Mexico. When he wanted to make a point and get our attention, he often used this passive voice phrase:
VSO: “Now comes something important.”
SVO: “Something important now comes.”
Ancient Mayas often used passive tense, which adds to the poetic quality of their narratives. The Popol Vuh, a 16th century book based on ancient sources, was written in alphabetic script using phonetic interpretation of K’iche’ Mayan. The beginning relates how the Gods first created the world:
“It takes a long performance and account
to complete the lighting of all the sky-earth
the fourfold siding, fourfold cornering,
measuring, fourfold staking,
halving the cord, stretching the cord,
in the sky, on the earth,
the four sides, the four corners, as it is said
by the Maker, Modeler,
of life, of humankind.” – Popol Vuh, Sam Colop version
Read culturally authentic Mayan stories in my novels about ancient Mayan queens.
Dennis Tedlock. 2000 Years of Mayan Literature. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2010.
Sam Colop & Luis Enrique. Popol Wuj: Versión poética k’iche’. Cholsamaj, Guatemala City, 1999.
John Curl. Inca, Maya & Aztec Poetry: Translations and Biographies of the Poets. Bilingual Press, Arizona State University.
Wikipedia. “Classic Maya language and Verb-subject-object.” Accessed 3/31/18.
Danny Law & David Stuart. “Classic Mayan: An overview of language in ancient hieroglyphic script.” In Judith Aissen, Nora England & Roberto Zavola Maldonado (eds). The Mayan Languages. Routledge Language Family Series. New York, 2017.